Yesterday morning I happened to be in the Hall of Justice and caught the closing arguments by the prosecution and defense attorney in the trial of Michael Pilato, a 15 year old boy charged with Murdering his family by setting the house on fire. Cases like this should make all of us think long and hard about what is important and what is fair.
Everyone agrees that Mr. Pilato was the adopted child of a crack addict, living in a difficult family setting with his adopted parents. They agree that he missed school, wrote rap lyrics and smoked a lot of Pot. They also agree that he started his own house on fire and three people died.
The defense attorney argued that this house in suburbia, was a living hell. That because of the circumstances Mr. Pilato should not be convicted of Murder. The defense suggests that “why” matters. They argued that after facing hell time after time eventually he snapped. The evidence showed that his sister tried to commit suicide only four weeks before the fire. Their technical theory was called Extreme Emotional Disturbance.
The prosecutor, Sandra Doorley, argued that the boy was a monster. That he didn’t care about the rules or the repercussions. That his rap lyrics foreshadowed his violent future. She said that the only hell in this case was the hell the victims experienced as their home burned with them inside. That there is no doubt that the boy killed and therefore, he is a murderer.
The Jury has been asked to consider both Intentional and Felony Murder in this case. Intentional Murder means that a person meant to kill and another person, and they or another person died. Felony Murder occurs when, during the commission of a Felony, or the immediate flight from the felony, causes the death of a person not involved in committing the crime. Felony Murder operates based on the legal fiction of transferred intent; the theory being that even if a person does not specifically mean to kill someone, if they to mean to commit a felony and someone dies because of it, society is best protected if they are treated as intending to commit the murder. Learn more about violent felony offenses.
This case is the type the uber-smart professors in law school talk about over and over and over. It is the ultimate balancing test. One one hand there are three dead bodies and we know who did it, what else can you say. On the other hand, is it fair to hold a self medicating 15 year old to the standard of other people in this world.
New York law says that a person under the age of 16 can not normally face criminal charges. However, a 13, 14, or 15 year old, can be prosecuted criminally for Murder. In addition 14 and 15 year olds can be prosecuted for certain violent felonies like robbery, kidnapping, and sexual abuse. Most importantly a 15 year old is legally responsible for committing the crime of Arson, in the first or second degree.For more info on young people being arrested click here – Student Offenses
In my opinion, it makes little sense to have certain crimes which a child can be liable for and others they can’t. It is unreasonable to believe that young people have any idea about the nuances of the law. Certain crimes like, endangering the welfare of a child, child sex abuse for lack of consent because of age, and underage drinking accept that young people do not have the same experience and maturity as adults. It seems logical that the consequences for a fifteen year old’s actions should be different than someone 25 or 30.
Since I started writing this post, the jury has come back. Guilty on all counts. I am truly surprised with the result. I thought that they would convict on Felony Murder and not Intentional Murder. To me, the age of the defendant brought about the real possibility of a compromise by the jury. I am interested to see what Judge Dinolfo has to say at sentencing in four weeks.